‘Flags of Our Fathers’ explores war and heroism
What Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood did for westerns with “Unforgiven” he does here with “Flags of Our Fathers” about the reality of war. The actor-turned-director earned two Best Picture Oscars for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” and is never shy when tackling subject matter that will evoke strong emotions from its viewers.
Eastwood takes a compelling look at one of the most hard-fought battles that took place in the Pacific conflict toward the end of World War II: Iwo Jima. The movie is based on the book by James Bradley (with Ron Powers) about his father, Navy Corpsman John Bradley, who was one of six American servicemen that raised Old Glory on Mount Suribachi in 1945. The screenplay is by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis. Eastwood tackles the true story and, while acknowledging the bravery of those heroic men who overcame incredible odds, also debunks the myth associated with that iconic moment in time and raises questions as to how those men were used as tools by the government to raise money during the final stages of WWII.
In what former “NBC Evening News” anchorman and author Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation,” Eastwood’s concept asks not just what the definition of heroism is, but also questions when the concept of “hero” can be turned into a celebrity, and how it can become exploited for a greater cause. But at what cost?
Considered to be one of the most famous photographs of our time, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped the picture that would later garner him a Pulitzer Prize. A lot of people don’t know that Rosenthal’s famous photo is of the second flag-raising that day. The first occurred before Rosenthal made it up to the top of the mountain.
When he does arrive he finds soldiers, who had been laying a telephone line, preparing to raise a second, larger flag the moment the first one comes down. And that photo (taken at the last moment) was the one that hit the wires worldwide and the one we see to this day. This led to confusion as to the identity of the soldiers, since none of their faces were visible. It is totally random how fate chooses those six soldiers, and actually it’s three, as the others are killed not long after the photo was taken.
Based on accounts from James Bradley’s book (his father was reluctant to talk in detail upon returning home), Eastwood deconstructs that famous moment in a series of both flashbacks and flash-forwards to explore how that photograph turned into a major campaign as a tool for the U.S. government to promote war bonds, and how the government designated the three surviving flag raisers as “heroes.”
When the government calls the surviving servicemen back to the mainland to start the national campaign, we learn up front how humble these men were and how uncomfortable they were being labeled heroes when, in fact, they felt the title belonged to others more deserving. Those three men include Doc Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy Corpsman called upon to help the Marines raise the flag; Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), a “runner” who happened to bring the flag to the top of the mountain; and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), an Indian who is the most uncomfortable at finding himself a national hero. To compound the situation, Ira also has to deal with the blatant racism of the time and people who committed said acts. They were just unaware or ignorant to the insensitivity of their remarks, I guess.
Eastwood (who also produced and wrote music for the soundtrack) doesn’t back down with the action portion either. Some of the scenes are pretty intense to witness, as he doesn’t sugar coat the obvious. In much the same way that Steven Spielberg brought home the reality of war in “Saving Private Ryan,” Eastwood captures the horror of war and yet, at the same time, doesn’t demean the character of those men who fought and died a just war in the Pacific at a time when democracy was something not to be taken lightly.
I might add that the Japanese government would not permit filming of combat scenes on Iwo Jima, so scenes were filmed in Iceland instead.
“Flags of Our Fathers” has an amazing “look” to it, reminiscent of an old, black-and-white photo taken from the pages of history. The entire movie looks like it could have been shot in that time period. Tom Stern’s cinematography gives Eastwood’s movie a washed-out look, where the colors almost are non-existent, leaving grays, blues and browns almost as one color in itself and giving the movie a great “period piece” feel. Because of this the movie is a very moving piece, both visually and in its story delivery.
– Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8.
Keepin’ it Reel
Now playing: “Flags of Our Fathers”
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Jesse Bradford, Adam Beach, John Benjamin Hickey, John Slattery, Barry Pepper, Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Robert Patrick, Neal McDonough, Melanie Lynskey, Tom McCarthy, Chris Bauer, Judith Ivey and Myra Turley
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R for sequences of graphic war violence and carnage, and for language
Length: 132 minutes
Howie gives it: 4.5 out of 5 bagels